Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Shortlist, Debasish Mishra

The Lady-Next-Door

The two-day-tedious journey of the tired train came to an end. It was my first visit to Kolkata. I felt as if I was lost in the endless huddle of human population. The one-eyed taxi driver- whose services were unfortunately cast on me by the prepaid taxi-stand- focused on the traffic ahead while I kept on gazing the grandeur of the Howrah bridge and the ancient imprints in the historic city. Quite contrary to my apprehensions, the taxi driver safely dropped me in Tollygunge- outside the Post Office as mentioned beforehand by the local staff of my office. Raju - a lad in his twenties- was waiting there. He was a worker in the branch,who was entrusted by the branch manager to guide me. He identified me as I got down from the taxi . "Welcome,Sir",he affably said. "Raju?"I  asked for confirmation. "Yes, Sir", he replied and voluntarily picked my luggage. I walked with him through the narrow lanes for almost five minutes until he announced,"This is the house arranged for you, Sir". I took the keys from him and  unlocked the aged doors of the old building.

I was a stranger to Kolkata. I was not comfortable at all. I could not adjust to the change of weather, culture, language and food. The transfer from Delhi to Kolkata was a painful transition for me.  My loneliness accentuated in the new place, especially after my return from office. My colleagues consoled that the feeling of discomfort would eventually pass with time. My parents ,on the other hand, felt that a matrimonial alliance would better my situation. The bottom line was simple : it was just the beginning and I had to face every challenge alone.

My father - Mr. Varun Garg- was a retired bureaucrat. He always wanted me to join the civil services. However,I had no real interest in it. I always aspired to make a career in the banking sector. I found the job of a banker quite appealing. The most painful thing to happen,prior to my transfer from Delhi,was the separation from my friends. Mohit Sharma had become a police inspector in Delhi and Salim Jafar was looking after his father's business. Both of them were my best buddies . The fun and delight that we shared together was unforgettable. I missed them more than before after landing in the lap of loneliness in Kolkata...
One fine evening, probably after a week or so, someone ringed my door bell. I was surprised as I didn't anticipate any guest. I opened the door with curiosity. A tall old man with a round visage,stood at the threshold. He wore a red T-shirt over his casual pyjamas.  "Hello Mr.Garg",he greeted with utmost politeness. "Hello",I instantly returned as though it was the practical application of Newton's third law.  "May I come in",he asked with a radiant smile. I nodded my head in approval although I had a fair amount of reluctance. It was not because he was a stranger. Rather my hesitation emanated for the dismal conditions of the house. My towel was lying over a chair. My clothes were heaped in the bed. Books and newspapers were littered on the floor. He could clearly understand the fact that he was an unwelcome guest without me saying a word. He himself volunteered,"I understand the travails of bachelor-life". Having nothing more to offer,I responded with a smile. I asked him to sit on the chair after removing the towel.
"I am Biswajit Ganguly - your neighbour", he declared with a prophetic smile. "The building in red - a hundred meters from this house ",he added . "Nice meeting you Mr. Ganguly",I said. "I heard that you occupied this house . It was lying vacant for a long time since Mr. Basu's departure to Bangalore. Great locality, I must tell you."

"Yeah",I agreed.
"So, you work in a bank ?"he quizzed.
"Yes,I do",I said,"Is there any problem in it?"
"No way...It's a beautiful profession. Money matters",he laughed.

I preferred to stay silent. Meanwhile, I was getting irritated at his untimely intrusion. Breaking the air of silence,he said,"My daughter Maya got the offer to join the Supreme Bank of India. But she did not wish to pursue her career in the banking sector".
Suddenly,I started to find interest in the erstwhile boring conversation.
"May be,she took the right decision",I opined ."She thinks so....She blindly follows her heart",he ruminated with a twinkle in the eyes.He spoke on his daughter for quite some time- detailing on her likes and dislikes. I was on the receiving end. "Oh,Sorry for disturbing you. I heard that you are alone . Therefore,I felt like giving you a little company. Come to my house for dinner someday. You will have some good time with my wife and daughter",he offered after an hour of directionless  chatter.
"Of course,I will",I answered in the affirmative although I was shy and reticent to the core . He left the place restoring the silence and loneliness.
Almost every evening, Mr. Ganguly would come to my home, have a cup of tea, talk about the same things endlessly- basically revolving around Maya- and return with the routine invitation  for dinner at his house. I always had an excuse to offer. I was slowly getting used to his company .
One day,he discovered my diary--where I had scribbled a hundred poems. "Oh! You are a poet",he exclaimed in joy.
"Yes. Unfortunately, I'm one",I smiled.
"Maya loves to read poetry. She will be elated to read this fresh collection. If you don't mind, can I take this with me?"he enquired.
"Oh yeah. Why not!" I reciprocated.
He left my house in glee as though he had discovered a hidden treasure .The next day,he brought compliments for my poems. "Maya is deeply touched by your words and emotions,"he informed . I was speechless,almost on cloud nine.  A compliment from the other gender always ignites a special feeling.  I tried to hide my emotions  with an indifferent expression.
On another day,he was relatively serious. He spoke of his emotional attachment with Maya. "I'm afraid of the day when my daughter will leave our house and adorn another one... I'm scared of losing her love,concern and care to her spouse. But Time is a great teacher". I gazed at the glow in his eyes that bore testimony to the purity of his emotions. " You are also a bachelor. If I find someone like you for my daughter, I would not mind to accept the pain of separation",he added with a mystic smile. I wondered whether it was an indirect offer. "Don't worry Sir. Fate must have chosen a worthy man somewhere...",I consoled with a curve on my lips. A few minutes later, I served a couple of cups brimming with hot tea as usual before Mr.Ganguly could bid me a bye for the day .
Days passed. After a hectic toil in office,the time spent with Mr.Ganguly was the perfect refreshment. More than his company, I enjoyed the description and details of Maya which he provided. I had formed an imaginary picture of her. I was too shy to ask Mr.Ganguly for a photograph.
I was not that social to ask about her to anybody in the locality. The curiosity of my heart was greatly unsated. I was,perhaps,attracted towards Maya. The way Mr.Ganguly endorsed her,any one would develop a soft corner. I assumed that Mr.Ganguly was overtly interested in getting her married to me. A lonely heart and an empty brain can reach the extremes of imagination and thought.
My mother smelled the issue during a telephonic conversation when I casually asked her if she had any problems with me getting married to a Bengali. "What?  Have you fallen in love with someone, son. I knew you were simple and someone would trap you!"she replied like a typical Indian mother. "I was just asking casually. If I ask about a crime,do I become a criminal",I defended myself. "I'm your mother,boy",she said,"and I can see that you are liking someone". "Anyone of your colleagues?"she enquired authoritatively. "No, almost all my staff members are double my age",I giggled. "Who,then?Express, beta. I'm your mother".
After a few moments of silence,I said : " A neighbour. A lady-next-door. Whom I've never seen".

"What!"she exclaimed in surprise.
I narrated the whole matter- beginning with Mr. Ganguly's entry to the praises of my poems - and still persisted with the dialogue :"By the way, I'm not serious at all. If a dog bites you, you are helpless and affected without doing anything".
My mother pondered over the analogy that I sheepishly used to look like a saint. The following conversations made me aware of my mother's relentless inquisitiveness.
Meanwhile, I received the order of my official transfer to Delhi- my home. For an entire year,I kept craving for this day.  But when I had it in my hand, I was internally hesitant. I didn't want to leave Kolkata. I had developed a sense of affinity for the language,the culture, the food,Mr.Ganguly and Maya-whom I had never met in person. I was impatient to share this news with Mr. Ganguly. I was hoping to confess my weakness for,and my desire to meet, Maya to him. Mounting official pressure wanted me to leave Kolkata as soon as possible. Mr.Ganguly was not seen for a week or so . As the last resort, I decided to walk into his house, shunning all cannons of shyness .
I pressed the doorbell nervously. A middle-aged-woman draped in a beautiful pink silk saree opened the door . "Yes",she quizzed. "I wanted to meet Mr.Ganguly",I fumbled. "Who are you?I couldn't recognise you",she asked. "I am Shekhar. I live in the old building of Mr.Basu- a few yards away",I answered. "Oh! You work in the bank.Right!Please come in",she welcomed. "I am Mrs.Ganguly",she added.
I joined my hands in respect and perched on the couch. It was a well decorated house (a stark contrast to my own accommodation) where the walls were adorned with beautiful paintings and artistic handworks . I looked here and there -- probably because I was not able to directly ask about Maya. I was crazy and curious to see her.
to directly ask about Maya. I was crazy and curious to see her.
"I am not able to see",I whispered.
"What ?"she retorted back.
"Mr.Ganguly",I said with a sudden stroke of wit.
"He was seriously ill for the last one week. He had a heart-attack",she pensively said.
"What!",I exclaimed in shock and surprise.
"Nothing to worry. He's out of danger. He'll be released tomorrow from the hospital",she informed .
"Thank God",I heaved a sigh of relief.
"I am old and alone . It's very difficult to manage a crisis ",she observed.
"But I assume,your daughter is there with him . You don't need to panic",I tried to console her .
She did not say a word . She was blank,almost petrified.
I stood up from the couch instantly and asked,"What happened,madam?"
After a few minutes of silence,she pointed her finger to a corner of the wall where a photograph was circled with a wreath of flowers. I was puzzled and scandalised. "She was our only daughter - Maya - who died in a plane crash five years ago",she spoke with a smarting voice . Tears distorted her countenance - unleashing the kohl and expressions of the eyes . On the other hand,my dreams suffered a premature death. Nevertheless,I held her hand to give her some fortitude.

"Mr.Ganguly cannot accept the truth. He believes that our daughter is still alive",she continued . I heard her silently. "Some days ago an engineer - as young as you- was staying in our neighbouring building with his parents. Mr.Ganguly invited them to see our daughter for a wedding alliance. It is so embarrassing",she cried. I wore the attire of silence.
"Last week,when we had an argument on the existence of our daughter, he was agitated . And then he had this heart attack",she ruefully added.
At last,I had to break my silence. "Calm down Mrs.Ganguly. You have to be strong. You have to balance Mr.Ganguly,"I consoled. I also apologized for rubbing the old wounds.
After an hour of shocks and surprises, I moved out of her house - leaving her with her tears and memories. The episode of Maya was hard to forget . It was unbelievable,uncanny and unfortunate. I was angry and sympathetic towards Mr.Ganguly at the same time . I could not meet Mr.Ganguly after that. I didn't have the courage to visit his house again. I left Kolkata after a couple of days. My diary which almost had a  hundred poems remained with him. On the other hand, the thousands of incidents related to Maya and narrated by Mr.Ganguly stayed with me...

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